Blood on the Leaves |3| The Innovative Errors of Horst Herold

Previously: The Abduction of Hanns Martin Schleyer

It was March 1982 and West Germany had not experienced a single political assassination or high-profile kidnapping in almost four and a half years. Elizabeth Pond, a correspondent for Christian Science Monitor had travelled to the Bavarian town of Rosenheim to interview Horst Herold, former president of the West German Federal Criminal Office (BKA). There to do a profile on the 57 year old social democrat, she painted him as a Faust to his enemies, but a George Smiley to his allies. This was certainly a dramatic punching up of a data collector but perhaps he had earned the title. After all, he was the person who “single handedly… brought European crime-busting (and terror-busting) into the modern age”, and the startling decline in criminal activity, particularly relating to drug trafficking and terrorist attacks could be attributed to his intensely logical way of handling investigations.

Today, Herold is seen as a pioneer in “criminal geography”. He revolutionized counter-terrorism by using data-driven logistics, making human witnesses redundant to a large extent. That said, when Pond met him, his reputation was far less positive. In fact, his methods were feared by libertarians, socialists, anarchists and conservatives alike, all of whom saw him as the mastermind of a new and disturbingly intrusive form of Orwellian surveillance. Yet, such criticisms he felt were lacking in their ability to accept modernity. Technology was not a threat. It was a vital tool in any democratic state.

“Technology is calculable. What is calculable is sure. Sureness of the law is an element of justice. To this extent, there is a direct, immediate connection between technology and justice… Not everyone gives me credit for this… In the end, I was brought down because I couldn’t make believable the concept of building an apparatus here that would serve justice. People imputed to me the building of a police-state apparatus.”

In ways, he was a man too far ahead of his time to be embraced, but too involved in behind-the-scenes operations to ever be appreciated. Seldom in the media, his face far from memorable, for most, Herold only received recognition after the release of Uli Edel’s 2008 historical-action thriller Die Baader-Meinhof Komplex, in which he was played by Bruno Ganz (better known as Hitler in Downfall, a comparison many of Germany’s guerrillas would appreciate). Prior, his work was either deemed sinister or as a symbol of failure. However, where others saw holes to be picked at, he saw opportunities to enhance state security. When asked by Pond to explain his thesis for state protection, his main argument centred around one of his final major investigations, catastrophic to his career, but vital in helping enhance his surveillance system. He was talking about the Red Army Faction, or the Baader-Meinhof Group at a period when their founding members were incarcerated in prison, while new generation were wreaking havoc across the country in order to secure their comrades release, this campaign now known as the German Autumn.

Herold’s point took Pond back to the evening of September 5th, 1977, on a one-way street in Cologne where one of West Germany’s leading industrialist, former SS member, Hanns Martin Schleyer had just been kidnapped, and his four security escorts had been shot dead by the RAF’s Seigfried Hausner Commando.

The scene of Schleyer’s abduction

The People’s Prison

Udo Philpp, a reporter stands under a tree at the scene hours after Schleyer’s abduction. Wearing a grey suit, behind him is a plastic cover under which one of the guards lies, killed by Peter Willy Stoll, who had hopped up onto the front of the escort vehicle in order to fire repeatedly into the already wounded man. The body, illuminated by the streetlamps is repeatedly stepped over by various officers, while Philipp tells viewers at home, “The officers had no chance whatsoever to react in time” as the Commando staged their intricate siege on Schleyer’s convoy.

“All that we know now is that the getaway vehicle was a white VW Bully, a Volkswagen van with a Cologne number plate.” Listing the registration, he notes the first responders on the scene in fifteen minutes have “their work cut out for them. Three hours later they’re still investigating.”

“The first bigwig on the scene was North Rhine Interior Minister Hirsch. Federal Interior Minister Maihofer arrived next. He came with Justice Minister Vogel… It’s an all-out dragnet operation”, the reporter added making filler everywhere he could. Then, stumbling on the final statement, he shakes his arm violently as the camera pans out and he concludes with a modicum of Bill O’Reilly style disgust, saying “That’ll do.”

Nobody knew how to react. There was not much to say. Still, press swarmed around Maihofer, asking if the assailants were those responsible for the assassination of state-prosecutor, Jurgen Ponto who had been murdered months earlier by the RAF. “It’s too early to tell”, Maihofer insisted. The only solid leads they had were the vehicle and the direction it sped off in.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, three members of the commando; Stoll, Peter Jurgen Boock and Seigline Hofmann sat in their van in an underground parking lot. Schleyer was in the boot, anesethised, but stirring occasionally. They were preparing to make for their hide-out, a “holiday resort”, which in reality was an apartment that they had been renting since July 18th. Ready to make for the den and abandoning one of their getaway vehicles in the lot, it was Hofmann who realized that they forgot to leave a note. Rushing back to claim credit for the attack, she slipped the piece of paper into their minibus, which read:

“The Federal Government must take steps to ensure that all aspects of the manhunt cease- or we will immediately shoot Schleyer without even engaging in negotiations.”

When at last they had reached the resort, Schleyer was left in the boot and he would remain there another two hours, watched over by a guerrilla guard. From time to time, the hostage would start showing signs of regaining consciousness, prompting his guard to almost administer a second anesthetic were it not for Schleyer’s insisting that such measures were unnecessary.

Upstairs in their flat on the third floor, the Commando members sat watching the television, which had been left on all afternoon. Preparing the ‘Peoples Prison’, they hid microphones in the bedroom wired up to a monitor in the kitchen. This was to assist in their interrogating of the prisoner, though nobody was quite sure what exactly it was that they wanted to extract from him. Then at nine, a figure appeared on the screen in a pansy-coloured suit, reading from sheet of paper behind a desk.

“I am sure that the real guilty ones might now be listening to my speech and they might feel a hidden triumph. But they must know that terrorism cannot win, because it has the will of the whole people against it.”

It was Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt speaking to the nation, but really just addressing the Commando and warning them that their actions would lead to his strengthening of the state’s security apparatus. Whether Schmidt actually believed such an appeal was effective, nevertheless, he struck awe in most other viewers, with the broadcast becoming iconic and perhaps, one reason why Schmidt remains of one Germany’s most revered political figures. [pullquote] “Never expected to find yourself in the People’s Prison, did you?” [/pullquote]

Then at 1am, a frail and disoriented Schleyer was walked up to the apartment. Delirious, he was laid on a mattress next to a double bed. Warned by Boock that any efforts to draw attention to his situation would be shut down immediately, Boock indicated towards a “dungeon”, formerly a cupboard.

“No one will hear you in there”, Boock said. “That’s where we’ll put you if you don’t act normally. Then we’ll have peace and quiet.”

Soon after this, another of the RAF’s leaders arrived, Brigitte Monhaupt, still on the run because of her direct involvement in the assassination of Jurgen Ponto. Like Boock, since the imprisonment of Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, Monhaupt had been working as a chief strategist, but she was not in the flat to talk about future operations. She was there to taunt the hostage, to see her political enemy reduced to a bartering chip. Directed to the bedroom, upon entry, Schleyer could barely register what he saw. One member of the RAF present recalled his expression as that of having seen a ghost.

Standing over him, Monhaupt asked simply,

“Never expected to find yourself in the People’s Prison, did you?”

Boock, at this point exploded with uncontrollable laughter.

Helmut Schmidt’s National Address

This Greasy Magnate

For the next 24 hours, there was silence, or at least no new information was released to the press. There were however, plenty of statements made by members of the Social Democrats, and from opposition leaders such as Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democrats Union who warned the “band of murderers” that “time is running out”. Speaking at length, Kohl paid tribute to the four dead escorts, insisting “We would remember the victims”, despite forgetting to say their names. Nevertheless, Schleyer, the “presumed hostage” received a beautiful tribute, something the RAF could point to when arguing that West Germany still clung to its Nazi past.

Then, on the afternoon of the 6th, the Protestant Dean of Wiesbaden’s daughter discovered an envelope in the family letter-box addressed to the Federal Government. Leaving the letter on his desk, when he opened it twenty minutes later the phone rang seconds later and a voice on the other end told him, “Send it on”.

Inside were two notes, a Polaroid of the captive and one additional private picture of him on his person at the moment of his abduction.

The first note read,

“on monday 5.9.77, the siegfried hausner commando took hanns martin schleyer, the president of the federal association of german industries and the president of the employers association, captive… we will repeat our first communiqué to the federal government, which we have learnt has been suppressed since yesterday by security staff. that is, all aspects of the search for us must be immediately discontinued or schleyer will be shot immediately. as soon as the manhunt stops, schleyer will be released under the following conditions:”

The Commando wanted the release of ten prisoners; Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe, Verena Becker, Werner Hoppe, Karl Heinz-Dellwo, Hanna Krabbe, Bernd Rossner, Ingrid Schubert and Irmgard Moller. They were to be given free travel to a country of their choice, supplied each with 100,000dm and escorted out of the state by Denis Payot, General Sectetary of the United Nations’ International Federation of Human Rights, and Pastor Martin Niemoller, a man who had gained notoriety for his sympathetic view of West German guerrilla organizations. [pullquote] “Baader was the only man who ever really understood me, and I’m the only man who really understood him.” [/pullquote]

In addition, they wanted the arrest warrant for Gunter Sonnenberg lifted, since he was “unfit for imprisonment due to a gunshot injury he suffered during his arrest”. Sonnenberg would leave with the others at noon on Wednesday the 7th from Frankfurt Airport. They wanted a response by 8pm, and after stating these demands they concluded by throwing in a slight jab,

“We are assuming that Schmidt, who demonstrated in Stockholm how quickly he can make decisions, will be equally quick this time given his personal connection to this greasy magnate of the cream of the national business world.”

The second note was signed by Schleyer himself, though he had ended up in an argument with Boock, as the RAF leader tried dictating to him its content. “It doesn’t even sound as if I’d say it”, he told Boock. They debated for a while going back and forth on whether Boock or Schleyer knew better how Schleyer spoke until a compromise was reached and Schleyer rewrote the message, confirming that he was indeed alive.

Planet Telex

According to Herold, he was the only person involved in the investigations who remained calm as these events unfolded. In fact, he would later describe his demeanour as “perfectly cool”. Rushed from Weisbaden to the BKA officers with his six colleagues and the fifteen computers he would use to track the commando’s movement, for the next few weeks Herold would rarely sleep or tear his attention away from his precious screens. Calling this new confine his own personal Stammheim, it was a reference to the prison that held many of the RAF prisoners named in the communiqué, but equally indicative of how Herold did not fit in at the BKA.

It was not out of character for Herold to align himself with the RAF prisoners to such an extent that one could guess he was actually a sympathiser of sorts. There is little to suggest Herold bonded with any figure within the Bonn Government, or BKA, actually his fondest recollections usually appear to be based around trailing the RAF.

RAF founding member and Stammheim inmate, Andreas Baader was “the only man who ever really understood me, and I’m the only man who really understood him”, he would tell an interviewer in 2013. There was proof of this too. Baader, when compiling a mandatory reading list for all RAF members included a large number of Herold’s published works on counter-terrorism. Baader knew Herold was not an ordinary thinker, he was an obsessive character, like a member of the paparazzi torn between tearing down celebrities, whilst simultaneously fawning over them. And for a few moments, it seemed as if Herold’s ability to see the world through the RAF lens would pay off.

Horst Herold  with the PIOS system -
Horst Herold (Centre) with the PIOS system

Publicity was the lifeblood of the RAF’s Big Get Out campaign, and Herold understood this fact. He knew that without press coverage, either their struggle would collapse or the Seigfried Hausner Commando would seek further attention. Herold wanted the latter. He wanted them to act out, because in doing so, he could add a new note into his PIOS system (People-Institutes-Objects-Things) and map their movements in far greater detail.

The PIOS system was run through Herold’s fifteen computers, and during the course of the manhunt, it would accumulate an estimated 70,000 files to aid the search for Schleyer. In fact, PIOS managed to obtain the very piece of information Herold sought, it had the location of the “holiday resort”, but this is where his thesis shared with Elizabeth Pond began.

Herold swore by paper trails. These were what made the PIOS system a force to be reckoned with, but equally, a lot of the work can also be attributed to Herold’s skill as a criminal philosopher. In order to track the leads, one needed to figure out the best route to go down first and Herold had a clear knack for knowing how to start approaching the data. Immediately after the abduction, Herold decided it made perfect sense to assume the kidnappers were still in Cologne. An attempt at fleeing either the city, or country would be too risky.

The kidnappers would not be any further than twenty kilometres from the scene of the crime and if they were to be camping out somewhere, the likelihood was that they would be laying low in a high-rise. His rationale here was that such constructs were anonymous, they had parking facilities and nobody could peek in windows. With this in mind, he sharpened his focus on a specific group: people paying rent and utilities in cash.

This method had previously led to the arrest of Rolf Heissler, one of the RAF’s “most wanted” members, who had been tracked down while living in Frankfurt. Specifically here, Herold looked at utilities and after entering these records into PIOS system he managed to create a list of one thousand high-rise residents paying bills in cash, before then cross comparing those with all car-owners registered with police, and again, with those registered as residents. On top of this and concerning the Schleyer case, in order to figure out who was passing around anonymous demand letters, some of which had been delivered to Gare du Nord in Paris, the BKA documented every person, between the ages of 20 and 25 years old who had travelled via the night train from Germany to Paris. Three thousand names were collected, and from them the identity of the courier was uncovered.

In the context of the Schleyer case these two methods of tracking movement would prove flawed in the short term. However, in the long run, they became crucial learning curves, which helped Herold perfect his methods of investigation. Why they were flawed was simple, the attempt to locate Schleyer failed. He would be executed the following month in retaliation for the alleged murder of Baader, Ensslin and Raspe. In a sense however, the operation also succeeded, because within the first four days of the investigation, Schleyer’s whereabouts had been registered in the database via a three-page telex.

His tactic of “playing for time” was working out. Whereas the Bonn’s recently convened Crisis Staff were calling for a “state of emergency transcending the law” and Chief Prosecutor Kurt Rebmann demanded a prisoner be shot every hour until Schleyer was returned, Herold’s decision to let the RAF make the first move each time drew results. By September 9th, he had already a shortlist of eight apartments in which the suspects might be hiding.

Schleyer after 20 days in the People’s Prison

Number four was Apartment 104 on the third floor of a high-rise in Erfstadt-Liblar, purchased in July for 800 deutschmarks and paid for in cash by a woman named Annarose. The landlord had raised suspicions after Annarose “took the money out of her handbag, which apparently contained a whole stash of banknotes” and, even if nobody could be certain that this was where Schleyer was being held, the fact is that the BKA had the exact address.

And then, they lost it.

A bureaucratic error apparently was the cause and perhaps it was inevitable that a single note would vanish out of the 70,000 files related to Schleyer’s case. However, that one of the disappearing pieces of information happened to be the main piece of information is beyond misfortune, because it cost Herold his career and Schleyer his life. Within four years Herold would be out of his job, but his PIOS system continued and was improved upon until it stood second only to the United States’ security apparatus.

Whenever he was interviewed however, he tends to overlook his own achievements given the consequences of one computing error. He became an exile, disillusioned by technology, the death of Schleyer hanging over him for another four decades of his life spent in a converted military compund. During an interview in 2010, he admitted that he still sleepless nights over how the operation turned out, and in a suitably dramatic manner, he went on to proclaim, “I am the last prisoner of the RAF.”


Next: The Contact Ban in Stammheim Prison


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